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If we chose it, would we need it?

An interesting new target has appeared in the discussion on human enhancements: to prevent and halt anthropogenic climate change by the use of moral bioenhancement. The issue of moral enhancements is extensively discussed, for example, in recent American Journal of Bioethics (April 2014, Volume 14, Number 4).


Often the object of high hopes is a specific characteristic, such as increasing intelligence or decreasing violence. These are conceptually intrinsic (although, of course with external purposes) goals and easy to understand: were there some meaningful and accessible biological basis for these characteristics, we could try to intervene them. While it is arguable that neither the nature nor nurture will ever be the total and final answer, I believe that the significance placed on the nature in the biomedical enhancement discourse is well beyond reality, although very interesting at the level of a philosophical though-experiment.


The issue of climate change is a different kind of thought experiment, because the target of enhancement is more closely attached to political decision making in the first place: “If key decision makers chose to employ it [moral bioenhancement], we might get important political agreements, treaties, and better policies.”[i] This aim is of course not limited to climate change issues and it could be well argued that with moral enhancement, we could have decision makers with more intelligence and a better sense of justice. These enhanced politicians would then make better policies to be able to reduce, for example, health inequity, social inequalities, and many kinds of oppression. Very tempting!


Let’s see what this idea would mean in the attempt of halt climate change. What are the actual problems and what is the proposed solution?


There are two (complementary) alternative lines of arguments to halt the climate change. One is that individuals would simply stop choosing the options that accelerate climate change. That is, we would, systematically and collectively, just stop using our cars, flying with planes, eating meat, and whatever are the practices with large carbon footprints – at least until cars and planes use some other actually environment-friendly fuel and meat is made in the lab. However, because we don’t have the ultimate solutions at hand right now, and because reducing the carbon footprint is so urgent, possible future solutions don’t really matter at present. Furthermore, I take it as a premise from the moral enhancement debate that changing individual behaviour is urgent.


The other option is to make political decisions that would restrict the existence of practices that accelerate climate change. That is, restrictions that would, with mild solutions, increase the taxation of flying, driving cars or eating meat so that few could do them, or set individual limitations to these practices. More stringent solutions would forbid the use of cars, planes, or meat factories. With legislation, the practices known to contribute to climate change could be diminished: it could become forbidden to cut down rain forests, and factories with high carbon emissions could be shut down. Of course these decisions are difficult to make, and we can think of many possibilities from mild to strict answers. I have no intention of claiming that the aforementioned list is extensive, but what matters here is that the primary solution is either in the individual behaviour or in political decision making.


Now what is the role of moral bioenhancement here? According to my understanding, the leading idea would be to morally enhance individuals to make them, well, act more morally, whether the individual is a consumer or a politician. My question in both cases it the following: If we chose to use moral enhancement to halt climate change by changing our behaviour or political decision-making, would we need it anymore?


Let’s consider the case of political decision-making. The current problem is, as I understand it, that decision makers 1) are not convinced about the existence and gravity of the practices that accelerate anthropogenic climate change; 2) think that restricting industry or economics is even worse, consequentially or deontologically speaking; or 3) do not think that we really would have any weighty responsibilities to future generations and nothing really bad will most likely not happen during their lifespan.


Thus, these are the target behaviours that moral bioenhancement is thought to be the answer to. And enhancement ought to be chosen (with consent) by the individual. Now let’s imagine a decision-maker, A, who possesses the abovementioned beliefs, and let’s imagine that there exists some moral bioenhancement that will make her more moral and amenable to addressing climate change. She’s asked: “Would you like to take this moral bioenhancement? It seems that your opinions on halting climate change are not moral and you don’t seem to be motivated enough to commit to the necessary decisions. Furthermore, you lack the sense of responsibility to future generations.” Now: If A answers “yes, I’d like that, I’ve been actually thinking that I’m immoral”, does she still need the enhancement? Has she not agreed that her opinions were not justifiable and responsible, she needs to alter her behaviour, and that action is required to halt the climate change? To put it another way, would those who actually are the target of moral bioenhancement voluntarily choose to become enhanced? How many people actually would admit that they are morally flawed and in need of moral enhancement? If we consciously chose to alter our thinking by taking up the offer of enhancement, is the moral bioenhancement still needed?


Now let’s turn to the individuals who are consumers. The problems of consumers include the same problems than with the decision-maker’s, but with some additions: 4) they acknowledge the anthropogenic climate change, but the carbon-neutral or otherwise better options (hybrid cars, meat with lower carbon footprint or vegetarian food, long-distance train tickets, living near to your workplace… ) are not reasonably accessible to them; 5) the individual is not motivated enough to change her behaviour because she is convinced that she will belong to the minority who make sacrifices. Again, there could be more reasons than those that I have outlined, that individuals are not motivated enough to address climate change.


Now if the reasons for individuals’ failures to change their behaviour are the outcome of reasons 1-3, they very much face the same challenges as those of the decision-maker: if the individual does not think she is immoral and in need of behaviour of change, she is not likely to choose moral enhancement to modify her behaviour. However, if her reasons are either 4 or 5, that is, in the motivation of the individual, then according to the thought-experiment, moral bioenhancement could be a solution. In that case, the individual has the “right answers”, but she is not motivated enough to follow them. Maybe she would choose the moral bioenhancement because she thinks she is in need of better motivation and ability to follow her moral thinking. The same scenario is applicable if the individual is the head of some factory: if the individual is not having the “right” beliefs she will most likely not choose an enhancement that would change her opinions, but she could choose the enhancement if she thinks she is in need of better motivation.


However, here we seem to have two separate questions: is it possible to morally enhance individuals to be more responsible consumers, and is it possible to halt climate change with individual actions. To the former, the thought-experiment says yes. But the latter is more implausible. Maybe climate change can be slowed down if everybody experiencing problems 4-5 would enhance themselves. But the people having problems 1-3 are still untouched. Thus, the burden would be only among the “moral ones”, and the “immoral” ones would not change their consumption habits and not choose the enhancements. Furthermore, it seems to be a bit backwards that the manufacturing of large carbon-footprint products could be halted only because of individual behaviour. That is, the individual consumers would somehow overcome all the domestic and global political flaws that subsidize and support fossil fuels and production with high amounts of greenhouse gas. Further, the ones who would not choose moral bioenhancement could sustain these practices. I conclude by stating that it is obvious that halting the anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be solved by structural decisions.


So back to the original question: how to make the decision-makers more responsible and moral? I think that the answer is the same to questions a) how to make them more moral, and b) how to make them choose moral bioenhancements. If she chose enhancement, the individual would acknowledge the need to change her behaviour and act accordingly. As such, I think that the scenario of moral bioenhancements is superfluous. Furthermore, I do not think that we should direct our efforts in thinking how to morally bioenhance decision-makers, but instead, on how to persuade them about the gravity of climate change and the effects of human action. And I doubt whether the best way to change someone’s behaviour and opinions would be to start the conversation by stating that “we think your biological basis for being able to think responsibly and morally is flawed. We encourage you to take this moral bioenhancement which we have made in order to change your behaviour that we think is immoral”. More fruitful means are more likely to be found among thorough deliberations with a respecting attitude towards opponents (and by a respecting attitude I mean an attitude that does not entail the supposition of moral superiority), thoughtful outcomes from the scientific community, and acknowledging the need to find reasonable solutions to the challenges brought by responsible policies.





[i] Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu: “Against Fetisishm About Egalitarianism and in Defense of Cautious Moral Bioenhancement”. American Journal of Bioethics 2014: 14(4); 39-42; pp. 41.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Admin wrote: “Let’s consider the case of political decision-making. The current problem is, as I understand it, that decision makers 1) are not convinced about the existence and gravity of the practices that accelerate anthropogenic climate change; 2) think that restricting industry or economics is even worse, consequentially or deontologically speaking; or 3) do not think that we really would have any weighty responsibilities to future generations and nothing really bad will most likely not happen during their lifespan.”

    I don’t think this is a very compelling problem diagnosis. Scientifically, most governments get that the problem is real and serious – most governments broadly sign up to IPCC’s reading of the problem. Also, the real reason they don’t invest in mitigating climate change is because they don’t capture the benefits of those investments. Toy example: imagine a country of 7M people, with $70M to invest. They could spend it on public education, public health or defence, and if they did then they’d be making an investment of $10 per capita. If they spent it instead on climate change mitigation their citizens do not capture the benefits of the investment – these are diffused around the world. So they benefits are spread globally, with an investment of $70M/7000M=$0.01 per capita towards everyone’s welfare, including their own citizens.* Furthermore, countries of 7M are not game changers in terms of their emissions anyway – that $70M will not actually alter the overall climate problem very much.

    This example is highly simplified, but it gets at some elements of why governments, acting rationally in the interests of their citizens, don’t spend much on climate change. The absence of political will is not the cause of weak action on climate change, it’s the symptom of a deeper incentive problem. Governments may (often do) believe that they do have strong duties to future generations, but they may reasonably believe that these are better discharged by investing in public debt reduction, management of demographic transitions (older populations), better skills bases, improved public health, safer borders or better outcomes for low income families. It strikes me as question-begging to presuppose that climate mitigation is automatically a more moral investment than those competing investments. Giving people pills to make them more moral may make them more sensitive to potential trade-offs among competing social choices, but it won’t make the trade-offs go away. So even though I don’t really buy any of (1)-(5) I agree with your conclusion – these choices are best made by the people, for the people, ie. politically. (e.g. if climate change highlights gaps in “global governance” then let’s think about those gaps. If we think it’s too expensive to do much about climate change, maybe we need to invest in reducing the costs of mitigation (technology policy). etc.)

    *This is far from the full story. ROIs can and do differ markedly across different potential investments – if the climate mitigation investment leads to great new technologies that give the country first-mover advantage, then that may be sufficient reason to invest. There may be other strategic reasons to invest, too, including non-financial ones, such as reputation, or other strategic reasons. But absent other reasons, it’s hard to get ministers of finance to see mitigation as a good spend, given the opportunity costs *to your own citizens* of that taxpayers’ money.

    1. Apologies – I should have been clearer about which bits of the problem diagnosis I was objecting to – I don’t think (1) is obviously right, and I don’t think (3) is quite right, either – (it’s a mix of the ethical (duties bit) and the scientific (nothing really bad will happen in lifetime). I think govts do think they have intergenerational duties; and they have a range of views on whether something “really bad” will happen in their lifetimes. I think (2) is spot on. But I wanted to defend* that view and to articulate why weak action looks so attractive given the incentives and the opportunity costs. Apologies that this was so unclear in my post.

      *Personally I would like to see much more climate mitigation (especially via large investments in technology). But I think it helps if we see why governments think about (2) the way they do.

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